One of the odd things about Bowie is how panicky he seems to get when he’s in fashion. The image of him as a “pop chameleon” is surely at least partly cover for a flight-reflex that kicks in when one of his stylistic changes really takes off. In the mid 70s, tasting superstardom on the back of his deviant glam image, he sidestepped into black US pop, making Young Americans and baffling his fans with “plastic soul”. Close to a decade on, and again the fountainhead of art-pop influence, he made exactly the same move, borrowing sounds and musicians from black pop to make a record that’s an exercise in knowing glossiness.
But something unexpected happened. Let’s Dance was massive: its smooth post-disco gestures fitting a current mood in pop, a retreat from frippery towards self-conscious sophistication, from pose to poise. It was to be the last time he matched pop’s moment so completely.
For all that “Let’s Dance” is an odd record. For a song about dancefloor erotics it’s harsh and heavy and everything about it seems half-petrified, the music a succession of freeze-frames. Bowie’s voice has an ancient, lizardly glide: there’s something as much vampiric as romantic about his invitations to dance and sway. I’ve often reached on Popular for the (rather hackneyed) idea that a record is easy to admire but difficult to love. “Let’s Dance” seems to be trying for this effect quite intentionally: it’s an impressively cold-blooded piece of work.